Newly minted community gardens. Farmers' markets reopening throughout the city. Small backyard gardens. That distinct smell you can only get from touching the stem of a tomato plant.
It's the time of year when finding fresher and more local food becomes even easier. On the first day Chicago's Green City Market was open outdoors for the season, I ran into Amy Cox, of Slow Food Chicago, who let me know about an upcoming event.
As a kickoff to the new farm-to-table season, Slow Food Chicago has teamed up with Chef Mark Mendez at Carnivale, to offer a tasting of small bites paired with biodynamic wines chosen by sommelier Liz Mendez.
The food and wine tasting will be on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 from 6:30 to 8:30 at Carnivale in the Near West Side neighborhood. Reservations can be made by calling 312-850-5005 and will cost $30 each, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting Slow Food Chicago (full disclosure: I am a member of Slow Food Chicago).
What does farm-to-table mean? According to Cox, it aims "to help connect people with real, whole food and where it comes from. As our country has relied more on industrialized, packaged and processed food, many have lost an appreciation for the benefits and good taste that comes from enjoying freshly harvested food that is grown by loving hands."
What about "biodynamic wines"? Cox explained that biodynamic ecological principles include the interdependence of life and the sustainable health of the property where something is being grown. For wine, that includes not just the grapes, but also the other plants and animals, as well as the soil at the vineyard.
"Slow Food honors these traditions and we are proud to create events that bring small scale sustainable farmers, food producers and people together around a table to savor, celebrate and enjoy. We believe that all people have the right to good, clean, fair food," she added.
The tasting event will feature a Green City Market table as well as one for Slow Food Chicago where heirloom tomato plants will be for sale for $4 a piece. Later in the summer, attendees can showcase some of the tomatoes they have grown in their gardens at the Slow Food Chicago Tomato Fest.
"We attempt to have events across many different price points and surrounding many different culinary styles to provide people the opportunity to taste what good, clean, fair food tastes like. And we want people to have fun!" Cox told me.
Personally, I see farmers' markets reflecting realities of our food in ways that grocery stores do not. Supermarkets do not show the seasons of our foods while farmers' markets highlight that very reality. Surely, early on in our Midwest growing season, there is plenty one can make with greens, potatoes, onions, eggs, asparagus, cheese, and fresh herbs (and many more!).
Later on, however, you will see nothing short of a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, some of which you might never have seen before. By and by, as each fruit and vegetable makes its appearance throughout the growing season, more variety becomes available than most could possibly fit into a week's menu.
Finding something creative to do with a green or vegetable you have never eaten is part of the fun of a farmer's market and asking what something tastes like is a surefire way to be told to, "taste it!" Already this year, I have enjoyed lightly sauteed watercress with garlic and I found this yummy rhubarb apple pie recipe, the apple sweetening the tart rhubarb. The reality of growing seasons is that certain foods prosper in this region only some of the time. Eating more of that local fare has the benefit of finding superior versions of those foods.
Eating closer to the source of our food helps to lift it above simple sustenance to something more special, educational, even tastier. As an example, strawberries grown nearby are different from those in the store, because they are the juicier varieties not meant to survive being picked, trucked, and set on a shelf. Rather, they are to be harvested and enjoyed in a way that cuts out all of the middlemen who depend upon a strawberry that lasts as long as those in the grocery store. From a farm or garden to their rightful place on our tables served on shortcake, in a strawberry pie, or made into jam, the relationship forged between farmers and eaters is invaluable.
Not to ramble on about the joys of outdoor markets, nor to bemoan supermarkets. I certainly am not claiming to get all of my food from gardens or local farms. Citrus and avocadoes do not grow well in or near Chicago and I do buy those industrially produced (if organic) strawberries and tomatoes in the off-season, though I have cut back significantly. The point is neither stiffness nor stuffiness about our food, nor to pretend that we have extended the right to food to everyone. Efforts persist, however we have a way to go before everyone enjoys in a bounty of good, clean, and fair food.
I do appreciate that for a significant portion of the year, you can get superior fresh foods at one of several community markets in Chicago (and indeed, thousands across the U.S.). Increasingly, chefs such as Carnivale's Mendez are integrating foods bought directly from farmers (or even planting their own farms) and consumers are planting gardens, buying directly from farmers, and purchasing community sponsored agriculture shares. Alongside indoor farmers' markets, pioneers such as Growing Power's father-daughter team Will and Erika Allen, are lengthening the growing season in cold places cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee by using hoop houses and other techniques to make more of these fresh, locally-grown foods available year-round.
Community markets and gardens in any city or town offer more enriching interactions with other community members. You might have someone playing an instrument, a chef giving a cooking demonstration, children and babies galore, people increasingly stopping to talk as they shop, bikers, dogs, and lest we forget, the people bringing the food, our farmers. The resulting hub is a place where entire communities can regularly gather around something as basic and universally enjoyable as food.
Finally, putting money in the hand of the women and men who planted, tended, and harvested the very food for which you are exchanging your dollars, being able to ask how they grew it, and how it is prepared in their kitchens is an experience like no other. You can see the love and respect they have for the food, a sense that seems nonexistent at the supermarket, where food is sold hundreds, if not thousands of miles from where it was grown. This supports and honors the typically small-scale and more sustainable farming these individuals and families work so hard to do, without all of the packagers, shippers, and distributors taking a cut.
If you have no idea what I am romanticizing about, I encourage you to visit a farmers' market, take your time picking out some food, maybe make a new friend, cook up something tasty, and savor it with family or friends. The tomatoes won't all look like one another, but that is part of the beauty.
I hope to see you at the Slow Food Chicago event on Wednesday, honoring the start of the farm-to-table season. I just made my reservation and am especially excited to see what the team at Carnivale puts together.
Disclosure: Wesley Epplin is a member of Slow Food Chicago.